(We Cook With The Nonnas)
Homemade food, kisses on my cheeks, and grandmotherly pats on the bum – these are the things that make me miss Italy.
The night we spent in Mississauga cooking with two Nonnas (Nonne, to be grammatically correct) was a nostalgia trip so hard, I nearly cried a few times. Out of joy!
We were invited to the Mancini home by my friend Sophie to cook with her Nonnas, two sweet old ladies born and raised in Italy. Nonna Maria Mancini (her father’s mother) was born in the town of Aielli, in the Abruzzo region, and Nonna Vincenza Scalise (her mother’s mother) comes from the town of Galli, in Calabria. Neither speak much English, so it was the perfect chance for me to practice my Italian (which, several years after having lived in Parma, is now pretty meek). It soothed me to have it rolling around me as it once did, spoken by three generations of Mancini and Scalise women.
To say we were ‘welcomed’ into their home doesn’t suffice; as soon as we arrived we were swept into the fold with hugs, handshakes, a baby to dote on, and the unparalleld Italian enthusiasm for sharing good food. We first toured Nonna Maria’s garden which she still maintains herself.
Then, while snacking on homemade pizza to keep our energy up, she taught us how to make gnocchi. This first involved hauling out ‘the board,’ a wooden slab covered with the floury remnants of 1000+ batches of pasta rolled out on it before.
Once it was secured on the table (and strewn with more flour), we set to work peeling the boiled potatoes. They were squeezed through the potato ricer, first by Nonna and then, after much insisting that Nonna take a break, by Dana. When all the potatoes were mashed into a fine puree, she placed them in a mound of flour, topped them with eggs and salt, and began rolling the dough.
She first mixed the eggs with her fingers, then slowly began incorporating the flour and mashed potato in the mix. As the ball of dough came together, it was kneaded, rolled, and smoothed by her strong, precise hands.
Next, we gathered around the table to help roll small chunks of dough into 3-4 inch ‘ropes,’ sprinkling flour on generously as we went.
Once this was complete, Nonna speedily chopped up the ropes into pillowy, diamond-shaped gnocchi, cooked them in boiling salted water, and mixed them with tomato sauce filled with herbs from the garden. When emptying her home-canned tomatoes into the pot, she deliberately showed us how to rinse the bottom of the jar with water and pour it back into the sauce.
Waste not, want not.
Meanwhile, Nonna Vincenza prepared ‘fetina,’ a veal dish. Thin slices of meat were dipped into beaten eggs, coated in bread crumbs mixed with fresh herbs, and fried on the stovetop.
Then they were layered with cheese and tomato sauce in a dish, and baked! It was wonderful - a Mancini family favourite.
With the Nonnas hard at work in the kitchen, Sophie’s mom Maria was busy outside frying zucchini flowers from her mother-in-law’s garden.
What’s nicer than eating a crunchy battered flower topped with parmigiano? NOTHING, that’s what. We ate some plain, and others stuffed with ricotta and anchovies. Every time I look at this photo, I get hungry.
Also, it should be noted that Sophie’s nephew David tasted his first anchovy that evening, and loved it. After one salty nibble, he grabbed the whole thing and shoved it in his mouth. What a kid.
Once all the cooking was complete, we gathered around their long outdoor table, poured the wine, and feasted on gnocchi, fetina, braised rapini with garlic, exceptional tiramisu, and dark purple plums.
We departed with hugs, kissed cheeks, bums patted by Nonna Maria, and more food for the road (classic). Grazie mille a le Nonne e la famiglia Mancini per una notte grande!